When it comes to bioplastic, a fly in the ointment may not be such a bad thing after all. Insects are used a lot around the world, even for food (nothing like a little dash of protein!) But now, researchers have found a way to use them for an even more savory purpose: biodegradable plastic.
“Quite literally garbage”: How fly exoskeletons became an unlikely source of biodegradable plastic
Black solider fly farming has already been around for some time. Their larvae have commonly been used for animal feed since they are packed with nutritious protein, and they’re also helpful little buggers for consuming excess waste.
They also grow up super fast, which means there are a ton of adult carcasses left over that have previously been discarded. Those tiny black shells are what researchers have set their sights on.
“We’re taking something that’s quite literally garbage and making something useful out of it,” says Cassidy Tibbetts, who is one of the graduate students working on the project at Texas A&M University.
So what do these adult flies have to offer? It’s those dark, shiny exoskeletons that may be worth their weight in gold (or in this case, plastic!) The exoskeletons have chitin, which is a non-toxic, biodegradable sugar-based polymer that helps strengthen the shell. (Think of it similar to the keratin in our fingernails).
Other manufacturers have already learned to extract the chitin from shrimp and crab shells, so researchers applied a similar process to extracting the chitin from the black soldier flies. These include ethanol rinses, acidic demineralization, deproteinization, and bleach, which all help purify the chitin. The final product comes out cleaner, smoother, and purer than its other chitin-extraction counterparts (which tends to come out yellow and a little clumpy).
So what can this purified chitin do? The research team is currently working to further break the chitin mixture down even further to its glucosamines. From there, these small sugar molecules can be rearranged to create bioplastics like polycarbonates and polyurethanes.
Those types of compounds are usually made from petrochemicals—aka, petroleum. While the traditional petro-plastic compounds are infamously hard to break down, the biodegradable plastic will naturally degrade over time. You could get all the functionality of traditional plastic products, without contributing to the current plastic pollution epidemic.
To make it even better, the research team lead Karen Wooley’s ultimate vision for this process is to make it part of a circular economy. How? Simple—by having the insects eat the waste plastic, bringing it all together in a self-sustaining cycle.
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